Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Personal Reflection on Yogic Paths

            My son was the Religion Feature Writer for The Vacaville Reporter before the plunge into Graduate School and Stay-at-Home Dadhood. He had the pleasure of interviewing clergy from all sorts of religious backgrounds, and I must say that talking to him about his articles was often the highlight of my week. When he interviewed a Hindu Swami and learned about the yogic idea of the different paths to God, I was very excited to be able to have a discussion on the subject.
            When I say different paths to God, I don’t mean different religious practices for God, although Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Yogaville where I attend yoga school, would argue that there is “one Truth, many paths.” That is not what I am talking about.
            Remembering that yoga is a scientific blueprint to a spiritual attainment regardless of your religious affiliation, these paths are merely different avenues one can take--the one best suited to his or her personality to have union (yoga) with the Supreme Source, which for most of us is God.
            Karma Yoga is one of those paths. This path means to devote oneself to unselfish duty and to do that duty for the glory of God alone. That word, unselfish, is most often understood as unremunerated. But if you’ve ever been in a volunteer situation, and it has done more for you than anyone else, you’ve experienced Karma Yoga. If, on the other hand, you can’t understand why you are underappreciated when people do not notice all that you have done, unselfishly, then Karma Yoga is not for you. The nice thing about this is that it’s OK. Volunteering is not for everyone, because there is another path which you would be better suited for.
            Perhaps your forte is in knowledge of scriptures. Perhaps you cannot read enough spiritual literature, constantly searching for spiritual wisdom and conversation. Then your path is Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge. If, on the other hand, the scriptures bore you to death, Jnana Yoga is not for you. It’s OK.
            Maybe you are a physical person, and you like the physical purification of Hatha Yoga. After a couple of miles running and a fairly strenuous round of Hatha Yoga, maybe then you can settle in for a time of meditation and prayer. This was my path for years.  This is, perhaps, the most Western way to approach spirituality.  But if you hate to sweat or fear physical sensations, then your path would follow another direction. That's OK.
            Or maybe your path is loving devotion to God, which is Bhakti Yoga. Maybe you love to write about God or make music about God, write poetry or simply see God’s presence in everything around you. This path is Bhakti Yoga. On the other hand, if you think “seeing God’s presence in everything is foolishness", which, I swear this is true, a Pastor once said this to me in Bible class, then your path to God might not be Bhakti Yoga.  That's OK unless your vocation might be religious ministry.
            Some people will add Japa Yoga into this list, and I think it is entirely appropriate to do so. As people who practice Centering Prayer will tell you, repeating a Sacred Word or a Mantra will lead the practitioner into meditation and even into spiritual bliss. Japa Yoga is simply repetitive prayer. The one I think I've used is the most is, "Please fix things," but I've met other people who are incredible Japa Yogis. They can sit in meditation or complete a difficult task all the while silently repeating their Sacred Word or Mantra. It keeps the mind from clinging to places where it should not. Quite a discipline!
            Raja yoga, the eight-limbed yoga or ashtanga (little a) yoga is what Patanjali’s Sutras are all about. Hatha yoga is one of the steps to Raja Yoga, but is also a path in its own right.  My Raja Yoga teacher at Yogaville (, says Raja Yoga is royal yoga. She doesn’t ever have to say it outright, but she believes Raja Yoga is top of the line, and Raja Yoga is better than all the rest. My yoga trainings are deepest in Raja Yoga, because Yoga Alliance requires Raja Yoga for its 200-level registration.  It has been more difficult for me to grasp than the other paths because it is inclusive of many other paths, but the rewards are well worth the effort.  For me it is a complete yoga.
            I think that each person has a “bent” toward a specific path but dabbles in all the paths. My life has been mostly Hatha Yoga, but I’ve gone through stages where I cannot read enough spiritual literature. I still get all glossy-eyed when I talk about the Bhagavad Gita. Did you know that Thoreau was very familiar with this ancient work? And I’ve had great fun volunteering. Most of the time I’ve gotten more out of it than I have deserved. And sometimes I have seen beyond this temporal reality into something inexplicable. That can be magnificently disturbing. But these are phases in my life whereas the physical has been constant.
            As I’ve looked back on my life I understand how I’d always leaned toward the Hatha Yogi’s path. It’s undeniable. I was one of the few, very few high school girls who liked PE. Loved hurdles, volleyball and was way too competitive in kickball in elementary school. Loved skating. In college I studied and taught ballet and loved the sheer athleticism of the Vaganova technique. Then got plenty of exercise keeping up with two active boys as they grew to teens. When my older son started climbing, I got climbing shoes and a climbing belt. Even entered a competition. And when my younger son started running cross country and track, I started running too, and I didn't stop until recently (knees), though my son stopped after college. I’ll still climb a tree if the opportunity presents itself. Interestingly, I’ve never been much for football, basketball, and baseball—the big three. Too many rules, exceptions and room for error. Too much Jnana Yoga for me. That's OK.
            The physical has always fulfilled who I am, made me marvel at God’s work in this wonderful contraption we call the body. The body and mind have the ability to do amazing things. As I have aged, however, that physical is moving towards a different path.  I cannot really define that path yet, but realizing the nature of my journey has made it easier to move deeper into the woods.
            Looking back to discover the truth of the present can make the future much less uncertain. So my suggestion is this: If you haven’t already looked into how God has fascinated you for most of your life, figure that out. A pattern usually emerges. You could very well find which path meshes with your life. And suddenly the Divine in all its manifestations becomes quite real, leading into places you have never contemplated.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ancient Wisdom Validated by Current Scientific Theory

One of the first subjects of Therapeutic Applications of Integral Yoga was a discussion of sulphorapane, which is a molecule that is present in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.).  Research is indicating that this molecule has anticancer properties.  So, eat your broccoli. 

First step might be as simple as being mindful of what we eat.

Entropy is a movement into disorder, disassembly.  Without intervention, all matter is moving toward entropy.  Negentropy is a movement into order.  Aging and sedentary lifestyles move the body into entropy, into disassembly.  Negentropy  can reverse entropy and maintain the body.  So, practice deliberate movement to intervene in this disassembly of the body, keeping the body assembled.

Second step might be as simple of being mindful of how we move.

Stress in entropic.  Managing stress is negentropic.
Relax, for Pete’s sake!

Third step might be as simple of being mindful of how to recognize the body’s signals that stress is moving beyond the tolerable stage, whether physical, mental, or emotional.

The second day of Therapeutic Applications of Integral Yoga began with a discussion on scientific reductionism.  While scientific reductionism is quite useful on many levels, it turns out that loading a reductionist experiment with more than three variables may prove to be too complex for consistent answers.  Dr. Panico gave a wonderful illustration about how moving into higher math grew more difficult as the variables in an equation increased.  In other words as the load increases, the journey becomes more difficult.

Which brought up the subject, allostatic load.  Allostatic load is like the variables in an equation: the more variables, the more wear and tear on the body.

Fourth step might be as simple of being mindful of when enough is enough. 

Tensegrity is an architectural term to explain the principle of how a geodesic dome can keep from collapsing.  Basically, each unit is part of a whole that maintains structure and unity without causing stress/damage to any other unit, often without coming into contact with other parts of the structure.  The same is true with the body.  Biotensegrity.  Each part of the body is affected by how other parts of the body move.  That’s why a massage/physical therapist can find something in the lower back that is torqueing the knee.  Why a present-day stress might trigger a painful childhood memory.

Fifth step might be as simple as being mindful that pain/discomfort might be related to something about which you are completely unaware.  Meditation might be an effective way to “zero-in” on the pain, paying attention.

How we eat
How we move
How we respond to stress
How to know when enough is enough
How to address inexplicable pain

This is a yogic lifestyle, living mindfully into each moment.

Many of you have asked what was the thing that stood out most in the workshop.  Two of the presenters were sitting on the stage, and as one started talking about the importance of exercise, the other presenter interrupted and said, “Yoga is not exercise.”  The first presenter responded, “Yes, it is.”  The second said, “No, yoga is mindful movement.” 
What I took away from that exchange is the profound difference between mindfulness movement (hatha yoga) and automatic pilot (exercise).

For more information about how yoga can heal the body, Dr. Dean Ornish has pioneered research in yoga therapy.  And fundamental to his work is his training in Integral Yoga®.  Dr. Ornish was doing yoga therapy before yoga therapy was cool.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Home Practice #1

Reclining:  Bring knees into chest (holding knees or backs of thighs) and rotate 8 times.  Rotate in opposite direction 8 times.  

Release left knee and extend left leg long on the floor.  Hug right knee into the chest with both hands.  Release right knee and relax knee out to the side, bottom of right foot coming somewhere to the inside of the left leg.  Arms overhead, elbows bending, one hand relaxing into the other. (Reclining Tree Pose) Take six deep breaths, relaxing more deeply with each exhale.

Bring right knee up and hold with left hand, then stretch knee towards the left. (Reclining Spinal Twist)  Take six deep breaths relaxing into twist more deeply with each exhale.
Release knee, bringing both knees into chest.  

Begin same sequence working with the left knee.

After sequence with left knee, relax in comfortable reclining position for 30 seconds to one minute. 

Home Practice #2

Standing in Mountain Pose in the center of a door opening, let the hands hold tightly 
on to the trim lining either side of the door at hip’s height or just above. 

Bring the hips forward, and move the lower spine into a mild cow pose, squeezing the shoulder blades together.  Keep the chin tucking toward the chest.  

Hold the stretch for a few seconds, and repeat if you enjoyed that.

Home Practice #3

Home Practice
Sun Salutation as Aerobic Practice

Mountain Pose. Bring the palms together in front of the chest.  Lift the palms upward. Feel the stretch through the sides of the body, feel the lift in the abdomen.  Breathe.  Open the arms a little beyond shoulder width apart and gently Arch Back, keeping the lower back completely stable, arms and ears staying aligned.  The arch is from just underneath the shoulder blades.

Bring the body back to centered.  Open the arms, hinge from the hips, lengthen through the spine, bend the knees, and move into Forward Fold.   Bring the palms to either sides of the feet.  Let the upper body relax over the lower body.  Breathe.

Step the left foot far back into Lunge, enough so the the right knee is behind the right ankle. 

Lower the left knee keeping the toes curled on the mat.  Lift the body upright, and use the upper body to sink through the hips to stretch the left thigh. Breathe. Bring the hands to the mat underneath the shoulders.  Step the right foot back to meet the left, and move into Down Dog, hips and hamstrings lifting upward, spine lengthening downward.

Bring the knees to the mat. Uncurl the toes to flatten the feet.  Flex the spine upward, tuck the hips forward, and bring the chin to the chest to move the body into Cat Pose. Bring the spine into a Cow Pose spine, extending the spine downward while lifting the hips, lifting the chin and chest.  Curl the toes, lift the hips, and return to Down Dog.

Step the left foot forward to come into Lunge.  Use the left hand to work that foot all the way up to the front of the mat.  Bring the right foot to meet the left foot into Forward Fold, knees bending.  Set feet up for Mountain Pose.

Lift the head, lengthen through the spine, bring the arms out to the side and begin to lift the body into Standing as the palms come together overhead.  Stretch the arms alongside the ears, lengthening through the spine, then bring the palms together in front of the chest.  Take a deep breath. 

Repeat stepping right foot back.

Continue sequence, moving more rapidly with each progression.